QSFer R.W.W. Greene has a new queer space opera (bi, gay, gender fluid, poly) book out: “The Light Years.”
Hisako Saski was born with her life already mapped out. In exchange for an education, better housing for her family, and a boost out of poverty, she’s been contracted into an arranged marriage to Adem Sadiq, a maintenance engineer and amateur musician who works and lives aboard his family’s sub-light freighter, the Hajj.
Hisako is not happy with the deal. The arcane branch of physics it requires her to study broke off a thousand years before, and she is not keen on the idea of giving up everything she knows to marry a stranger and move onto an aging spaceship.
Onboard the Hajj, Hisako soon learns her dilemmas are overshadowed by the discovery of ancient secrets, a derelict warship, and a chance at giving the survivors of Earth a fresh start.
Maybe God will make it better.
The thought escaped Adem’s throat in barely remembered Arabic. Years before, his grandmother had given him the words as a talisman against specters like the one he faced now. A crusted sore sealed its right eye into a squint, protein starvation bloated its belly, and its arms were thin as sticks. The little boy smiled and presented the bowl again. Speaking the phrase in French might have worked better. The Almighty had always been good to the EuroD.
Adem reached into the belly pocket of his utilisuit and sorted through his supply of coins by touch.
“That bowl is an antique,” he said. The technology used to produce them had been lost to Gaul a century before. Sealed in its bottom, an animated 3-D image of a once-popular cartoon character offered a cheerful thumbs up in recognition of cereal well eaten. “You should take it to an– –.”
Adem finished the sentence in his head. An antiquities dealer would most likely swindle the boy, and he would come away little better off and in need of a new bowl. There wasn’t much justice available to people like him. There were work programs and shelters for state-approved orphans, so the boy had to be an illicite: an illegal birth. His parents had abandoned him in fear of punishment or lost him to the streets when they went to prison.
Adem covered the cartoon’s grinning face with triangular coins, enough for a month’s worth of food. He dug into his supply of New Portuguese, hoping to be better understood. “Keep it for yourself. Don’t give it to any––.”
The boy dashed away, the bowl tight against his narrow chest. Adem cursed. The money would likely end up in the hands of whatever fagin gave the child his daily meal and a corner to sleep in. Adem pulled up his hood and resumed his walk.
The russet afternoon light turned the roadway’s cracked pavement the color of dried blood. The area had devolved since Adem’s last visit, the people becoming poorer, more desperate. Rows of refugee shanties and hovels pressed up against the elevator depot. In a taxi he might not have noticed. He could have avoided it completely by darkening the taxi’s windows and watching a news or entertainment vid. But when he was on-planet, Adem walked where he could, curious to see what had changed. He used to be able to blend in with the locals but now his simple utilisuit made him a target.
A woman beckoned him from the next corner. She was standing in front of a crumbling building that had been a thriving noodle shop half a standard century before. She ran her hands down her short dress and raised its hem to reveal her scrawny thighs. “You look lonely, spaceman!”
“Bad luck,” Adem said. “I’m getting a wife today.” Talking to another child might have broken his heart, but he had thicker skin where adults were concerned.
“I’ll give you my bachelor discount.” She stepped closer. The smell of her sweat allied with the chemical tang of whatever drug she favored and the cheap ginja on her breath. Her tight dress was grimy, hugging bone more than curve. Her hair was dry and limp.
“Last time I was here this was a nice place,” Adem said.
The woman shifted position, her malnutrition not quite eliciting the desired response. “How long ago was that?”
“Two and a half years relative. About fifty years your time.”
She rubbed her lower lip with the stump of her missing left thumb. “I have a friend across the street. Maybe you’d like him better. Maybe you want both of us.”
“I’m all set.” Adem reached in his pocket for more coins. “Take a couple of days off. My treat. Call it a wedding present.”
She limped away with the money. Rationed, it might keep her off the streets for a couple of weeks, but more likely she’d head to a tea shop and spend it on Bliss or whatever people like her were inhaling these days. If she forgot to save a few of the coins for her pimp, she might lose the other thumb.
Adem pushed his hands into his pockets. Nearly three standard centuries ago, during his first visit to Gaul, Adem had offered a woman named Tamara his virginity and four coins from his pocket. She had relieved him of both with algorithmic efficiency, and he’d been back on the street in fifteen minutes. Tamara had long been dust, but once she had been beautiful enough to attract well-heeled customers. The one-thumbed woman might be dead the next time Adem came this way, and her daughter or son, or even a grandchild, might be working the corner where the noodle shop used to be.
Four grim-faced men in cheap armor manned a checkpoint on the next block, slowing the creep into midtown. There hadn’t been a checkpoint fifty years before, and the line between the central city slums – La Merde, as locals called them – and everywhere else had not been so sharply drawn. Adem brushed at the front of his utilisuit. A block prior it had made him desirable; at the border it made the authorities wonder why he was afoot.
“What’s your business?” The guard was a big man, and his ceramic armor strained to cover the vulnerable parts of his body.
Adem kept his hands in sight. “I’m just down the elevator. Got an appointment with a matchmaker.” He offered the address.
The guard inserted Adem’s ID stick into his reader. Adem held his breath. There had been a couple of dust ups when he was a kid. No one alive had anything to complain about, but the law could get complicated when relativity was involved.
The guard grunted and handed back the stick. “You crew?”
Adem shook his head. “Family. Part owner.”
“You paying for a gene job, then? Big smile and no brains?” The guard’s face darkened. “A nice little splice to keep you happy up there in space?”
Adem forced himself not to take a step back. “Nothing like that. Just a standard contract.”
The guard sneered. “Lost my little sister that way. She married a Trader, too. Standard contract. Won’t see her again until I’ve got gray in my hair.”
“What ship?” Adem said. “Maybe I can get a message to her.”
“Doesn’t matter. She’s gone. I tell Ma that she’s got to move on with it.” The guard gestured with his stun club back down the street. “Still better than that. Her contract got us out, but the shit keeps coming. Next time you’re here checkpoint’s liable to be a mile further up and all these pretty offices turned to squats.” He spat on the sidewalk. “She’s better off up there. She might as well be dead to us, and she’s better off.” He waved Adem on. “Go meet your wife.”
R.W.W. Greene is a New Hampshire USA writer with an MA in Fine Arts, which he exorcises in dive bars and coffee shops. He is a frequent panelist at the Boskone Science Fiction and Fantasy Convention in Boston, and his work has been in Stupefying Stories, Daily Science Fiction, New Myths, and Jersey Devil Press, among others. Greene is a past board member of the New Hampshire Writers’ Project. He keeps bees, collects typewriters, and lives with writer/artist spouse Brenda and two cats.